It’s before noon on a cool Sunday in May, yet thousands of teenagers are wide-awake and restless. Gates of chain-link fence creak open, and a stretch of New Jersey’s finest asphalt shudders with the rumble of rubber-soled Converse and Vans. Barely pubescent boys in black T-shirts whiz past, leaping between slower moving members of the herd, and chains of hoodie-clad girls, holding hands to avoid separation, slither through the crowd, giggling and trying not to stumble as they fire off text messages and cameraphone shots. It’s day two of the Bamboozle, a weekend-long festival held in a giant parking lot outside of Giants Stadium, and Long Island’s Brand New, one of the biggest acts on the bill, are a late addition as the noontime opener on the main stage, prompting this early-arriving, rabid crowd.

What’s fascinating about this event — particularly in comparison to every other American festival — is the sheer bulk of performers and stages. I counted over 150 bands on the bill, and most play on cleverly configured two-sided stages so one band can start rocking out the second another band finishes. For example, a lazy man planted in front of the side-by-side Macbeth and Riot Squad stages, could watch 20 bands over the course of nine hours without moving an inch. This husky man watched about six bands from that position yesterday. And it’s great value, as well: $35 per day for tickets, or about 50 cents per band. Even those who came just to see top-billed acts like My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park, Muse, and Taking Back Sunday still got their money’s worth; seeing any of those four bands at their own shows would cost about as much.

But what the Bamboozle lineup resembles most is your average iPod. I’d wager that most owners of, say, an 8GB iPod nano have about 300-500 artists behind the 2,000 songs, or about four to six songs per artist, on average. Sure, they’ve got their favorites, acts for whom they’ve snagged an entire catalog, but they’ve also only got one or two songs from a large number of bands. Even on my own iPod, which is definitely more album-heavy, I only average a little over eight songs per artist. Digital music has changed our consumption habits; while the album is still the dominant format, it’s no longer an inherently necessary one, and those 30-minute sets felt sufficient for many a Bamboozle attendee.

On the way to Jersey yesterday, my four-strong posse of festivalgoers pondered one question for quite awhile, and answering it became my mission of sorts for the weekend: What Bamboozle bands could go six or seven albums deep with their careers? Is there a band in this scene whose career milestones might rival those of Pearl Jam, Radiohead, or the White Stripes, or even a consistent, album-releasing, touring band like Wilco?

There are a few contenders, and a few more worth keeping an eye on. But there are way more bands who make the Bamboozle/Warped Tour world feel more and more like the hair metal scene of the ’80s: completely vapid, cartoonish copies of one another. Madina Lake looked like Nelson, but with haircuts inspired by AFI. Cute Is What We Aim For might be the most uninspired band I’ve ever seen, not to mention in front of several thousand people. I spent several agonizing minutes suffering through Hellogoodbye while waiting for Muse to take the stage, and endured the hollow sounds of bubble-boys Cartel, too.

Hating aside, let’s talk about the good stuff — which was, admittedly, few and far between. Brand New’s day-opening set yesterday was the most stirring one I saw all weekend, stuffed with epic sounds from last year’s The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me. As I watched the band cruise through “Jesus Christ” from behind the stage, basking in the crisp midday sunshine, I remembered seeing Death Cab for Cutie at Coachella a few years back, feeling “Title Track” wash over me in the afternoon sun; very similar vibe.

Yesterday also featured a set from Circa Survive, whose new album (out May 29) has been on the heaviest of rotations for me lately. Frontman Anthony Green slid and bobbed around the Monster Stage like a prizefighter, his toes rarely settling on the floorboards. The band’s massive songs surged out into the afternoon, and as I peered out into the eyes of the audience, especially the ones singing back every word, I sensed the depth of connection between Circa’s fans and the band’s canon.

“Secret” (i.e. billed under a fake name) performances by two stalwarts — Motion City Soundtrack and Thursday — helped bolster the Saturday evening lineup, but it was a band after Motion City that kicked our emo-tastic day in the crotch. Van Stone frontman Randy Van Stone dressed like pro wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, and a gust of wind blew his kilt skyward to reveal a studded, black leather codpiece. Class! The band was already playing campy cock rock (on guitars all crafted from weapons: machine guns, axes, and saws) when they launched into “$25 Blowjob,” and Van Stone emerged with a giant rubber penis that sprayed fluids into the crowd. Maybe it washed away some of the day’s guyliner. We can only pray.

Elsewhere, the Matches delivered sublimely clever pop, definitely the only stuff I found myself humming all weekend long. The band’s “Chain Me Free” and “Drive” became benchmarks for me after seeing the Oakland band in the festival’s awesomely cool indoor bubble. And Manchester Orchestra brought a sincere, alt-country element to Bamboozle that inspired this comment from a friend, uttered to me during the band’s first song: “I already know this is going to be the band I like the most today.”

As we exited through the festival gates, I looked up at Giants Stadium, a stadium with a deep rock’n’roll legacy. Bruce Springsteen sells out the 70,000-plus capacity venue for weeks on end, and bands like U2, Pearl Jam, and Dave Matthews Band have played there. The Police and Al Gore’s Live Earth fest will stop there later this year. I had to wonder whether anyone I’d seen at the Bamboozle could ever reach that plateau, whether I could imagine myself coming back to this parking lot and seeing fans tailgating for, say, My Chemical Romance’s Giants Stadium debut. I try to hear “Helena” cascading into the upper deck. I try really hard. But even in my mind’s eye, the stadium lights remain dark. PETER GASTON


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